You’d have to be a stone to be unaffected by Stephen Frears’ Philomena, the true story of sixty-something Irish woman who embarks on an unexpected odyssey to find the son taken from her by Catholic nuns some fifty years earlier. It’s a dramatic character study delivered in sometimes-comic tones, featuring two terrific performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the unlikeliest of pairings. First glance might suggest that Philomena is a situation road-movie, yet the film’s agenda, which includes a deserved dose of axe-grinding against the church, is really a rich character study.
Dench, cemented as a sure Oscar nominee for this work, is Philomena Lee, the real-life woman sent to the Irish convent Roscrea as a teen in 1953 after getting pregnant out of wedlock. Like many a young girl of circumstance, she was banished by Rosecrea’s nuns to slave labor in the laundry (the film calls to mind Peter Mullan’s devastating 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters), allowed to see her son for an hour a day until he was sold, as was common practice, to wealthy American adoptive parents at age 3 ½. Adult Philomena has been haunted by the secret events for her entire life, and on her son’s would-be 50th birthday, decides to find him.
Enter cynical and on the down slope journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), working on a novel about Russian politics and uninterested in a freelance op to cover Philomena’s “human interest” story, a genre for which he can barely disguise his contempt. Persuaded by Philomena’s adult daughter, he agrees to investigate.
Their quest leads to America and the back to Ireland, with major investigative and personal revelations along the way. If you think you know where Philomena is headed, trust me—you don’t. In a story with several genuine surprises that builds to a scene of true power illustrating the power of forgiveness to heal, the film’s great strength lies in its rich characterizations of both Philomena and Martin, not merely an odd couple road movie but a story of how two very different people connect in a moment of mutual need.
Co-adapted for the screen by star Steve Coogan (terrific here as in this year’s dramatic What Maisie Knew) and Jeff Pope, from a book by journalist Martin Sixsmith and scores of interviews with the principals, Philomena’s intersection between principals produces an unusually thought provoking dialogue—how does Philomena shoulder on, faith unshaken even when faced with the cruel punishment and its perpetrators? This question is considered by the world-weary Martin, a modern atheist and rejector of what he sees as Draconian church doctrine, himself more angry at the events inflicted on Philomena than she herself. The pair comes to respect each other in a most believable transference of understanding, producing a genuine enlightenment rather than pat movie realizations.
While the film clearly indicts the church for its mistreatment of generations of young, single mothers—and one aged nun delivers a powerful rationalization in the final moments—Coogan and Frears keep focus on Philomena’s capacity to believe and forgive. Dench, playing a simple woman of unshakable faith and tender heart, delivers this picture with grace notes that break your heart.